The Long Song

I’ve recommended Andrea Levy’s novel Small Island many times since I’ve read it, and I’ve wanted to read more of her books but (as usual) never got around to it. Her death back in February put her back on my radar, so I decided to read her final novel, The Long Song. The book is the life story of a Jamaican woman named July, born into slavery and now writing her story at the urging of her son, who owns a printing company and keeps urging her mother to shape her story in the way that he sees fit. July resists:

Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest. If not, then be on your way, for there are plenty books to satisfy if words flowing free as the droppings that fall from the backside of a mule is your desire.

As it turns out, though, July needs her son’s encouragement to tell some of the more painful truths she has to share. Because as forthright as she might be, she also wants to present happy endings, and those are hard to find in her story.

July was born to a field slave named Kitty on Amity Plantation, and different stories were told about her birth. When she was a child, Caroline Mortimer, the sister of the plantation owner, chose her to come work in the house as her personal servant. July remains with Caroline through the 1831 slave revolt and even after the enslaved are granted freedom. Her reasoning for staying is never made clear, although I got the impression that it was simply more comfortable and easier than leaving would have been. She certainly doesn’t have any particular loyalty toward Caroline, who she writes about with scorn for her plumpness and helplessness.

Their relationship becomes further complicated by the arrival of a new overseer, the handsome Robert Gibson, who catches the eye of both women. Gibson was against slavery, and now that it has been abolished, he intends to make Amity a pleasant place for the newly freed people to work, earning income in the sugarcane fields to pay the modest rents for their homes and plots of land on the plantation. He also falls deeply in love in July but feels that it would be wrong for him to act on it, even though July seems more than willing.

Of course, the relationship and Gibson’s great plans don’t turn out as he intended, and when placed under pressure, he doesn’t turn out to be the man he initially appeared. I kept thinking about The Book of Night Women, another story of an overseer and an enslaved woman in love. In this case, July was technically free, but the power differential is always there. Robert, as a white man, is in charge of how everything goes, between him and July, between him and Caroline, and between July and Caroline.

Much of this book is about people seeking power, not just slavers over the enslaved, but rich over less rich, lighter-skinned over darker-skinned, skilled over unskilled, attractive over unattractive. Everyone is looking for a way to gain just a little bit of power and status over others, because that power and status is what saves them from starvation and disaster. And by telling this story, in her way, July herself is asserting power, as is her son in taking charge of the telling. And maybe, in doing so, they’ll be able to snatch back a bit of what they’ve lost. Maybe. But maybe a different story was told for too long, and there’s no way to restore what’s gone.

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Tears of Autumn

When Charles McCarry, novelist and former CIA operative, died earlier this year, I was reminded that I’d been meaning to try his books for a long time. (Jenny is a big fan.) His books focus on the life and career of the spy Paul Christopher. My library didn’t have the first book in the series, so I started with Tears of Autumn, the second Paul Christopher novel. That worked out fine, partly because the subject matter, the Kennedy assassination, is one that is naturally really interesting.

When the book opens, it’s 1963, and Christopher is living in Rome with his new girlfriend, Molly, but his CIA work takes place all over the globe, primarily Vietnam. We know right away that spying presents many moral dilemmas as he ends up sending a useful and likable informant to an almost certain death. But events intervene in the form of the assassination of South Vietnam’s president Ngô Đình Diệm and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu. Then, less than a month later, John F. Kennedy is assassinated. And, in a flash, Christopher realizes that he knows who’s behind it. He just needs to collect the evidence and connect the dots, something he can’t do in his official CIA role.

Christopher’s theory is clever and seems plausible, especially for the purposes of the novel. And, best of all, it’s not one of the usual theories. There’s nothing about a magic bullet or additional shooters. There are a couple of interlocking conspiracies, with not all of the players knowing who else is involved. I don’t know that McCarry himself saw this as a likely possibility, but it makes for a good story.

But beyond the conspiracy, the book takes an interest in the human cost of the kind of work Christopher does. Of course, he’s put in danger many times and barely gets out of a couple of situations. But there’s also an emotional cost. Molly herself is put in danger by being part of Christopher’s life, and the relationship makes Christopher vulnerable in a way that could disrupt his work. Christopher’s reaction to the poetry he used to write shows just how much he cuts himself off from his emotional side. He doesn’t want to talk about it, and when he does, he dismisses any potential deeper meaning to the words, noting that his choices were just to create a rhyme.

And that leaves us with a man who is an excellent spy but perhaps on the way to losing his humanity. The central drama of the book is the unmasking of the conspiracy, but almost as important is Christopher’s need to save himself from his work.

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The Break

Katherena Vermette’s novel, The Break, is the story of an Indian community and a crime that connects them. It begins with Stella, a Métis woman, who sees a woman being raped in the area by her house that she calls “The Break.” That same night, her teenage cousin, Emily, goes with her friend Ziggy to a party in hopes of drawing the attention of Clayton, a boy at her school. Emily’s mother, Paul, and her aunt, Lou, are figuring out their own relationships with men. Meanwhile, another young woman named Phoenix escapes from juvenile detention. Tom, the Métis police officer called to look into the case with his more experienced white partner, is only just starting to think about his identity and, perhaps, what it means to his work.

Each short chapter in the book looks at events from a specific character’s point of view, and as each character’s link to the crime becomes clearer, the tragedy gets darker and darker. Vermette gradually reveals moments in these characters’ pasts that connect them to each other and shows how their connections to their community faded, even if their intense feelings for each other did not. For this is a book about bonds that last beyond time and distance. And it manages to be about that without getting soppy or sentimental. The focus instead is on strength, enduring through tragedy.

I was especially interested in how Vermette managed the story of the perpetrator of the rape Stella witnesses. That person is a character in the novel, and Vermette manages to make it clear in no uncertain terms that the crime is a wicked and inexcusable act of violence while also recognizing the perpetrator as a human person with a history, not a pure monster. The dramatic focus, however, remains on the victims, on all victims, past and present. They and those who support them are the ones with strength and courage.

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Black Leopard Red Wolf

I’ve been excited about Marlon James’s new book ever since I first heard about it. Other-worldly fantasy drawing from African mythology? Yes, please. But then I started hearing how violent it is, and I wasn’t sure I could stomach it. I can tolerate quite a lot of violence in my fiction, but when it’s too relentless or too gruesome, I lose both my nerve and my interest. So I picked this up with a lot of mixed feelings.

It turns out that the book is indeed extremely violent, but the creativity and characterization were exciting enough that I was able to see past the grisly scenes to enjoy the world and the story. And, as the book goes on, I either got acclimated to the violence or it got less grisly and became less central to the story. (But, for those who have trouble with scenes of rape or violence involving children, it may not be possible to get into this book at all.)

The book’s main character, Tracker, begins the book in prison, making what appears to be a confession or testimony to his jailer. And that testimony forms the bulk of the book. He tells the story of his early life and his connection with the Leopard, a shape-shifter who appears in the form of a man and a leopard. Tracker and the Leopard develop a complex relationship, in which they are sometimes lovers, sometimes colleagues, and sometimes rivals, and that relationship drives a lot of the emotions within the book. The principal plot involves the search for a missing boy, a boy who is more important than Tracker realizes when the search begins.

The book has an episodic structure, with each section taking place in a different region, with a shifting cast of characters as different people and creatures join the search. The cast is a mix of lovable misfits and malevolent beings, and sometimes Tracker teams up with his own enemies (or former enemies) if it will get him closer to his goal. The shifting alliances and loyalties made the book a little hard to follow at times, and I sometimes just had to accept plot turns that didn’t make complete sense to me. I was interested enough in the world not to fret too much, especially since I think part of the point was that Tracker lives in a world where you have to get allies where you can, even if it doesn’t make sense. A witch may have her own agenda that runs counter to Tracker’s, but she’s not as vile as, for instance, the white scientists who appear late in the book.

Another thing I had trouble following was the dialogue. These characters rarely speak directly, and much of the dialogue is laden with subtext that wasn’t entirely clear to me. It make the world and the relationships feel bigger than any book could contain, and that is something I appreciated. There are often scenes where characters tell each other stories from their own pasts, all of which adds to the richness. I think this book could reward re-reading in the same way that, say, Dorothy Dunnett’s novels or The Lord of the Rings does. The first read is to get the general shape of the plot. The next read is to understand it.

And there are magical scenes that make me want to understand this world more. The land of Dolingo, which felt at first like an echo of Tolkein’s Lothlorien, turns out to have darkness at its core. There are characters like Sadogo the giant and Mossi the prefect who I genuinely loved. And Tracker’s beloved children — I’d love to learn more about them.

I understand that the subsequent books in this trilogy will cover the same events from different perspectives, and I’m very curious as to how that will work. The book ends with the suggestion that the next book could come from the moon witch who set Tracker on his task, and I’m very curious as to how she perceived these events — and Tracker himself.

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Melmoth

Melmoth by Sarah Perry took me by surprise. I didn’t like Perry’s previous book, The Essex Serpent, nearly as much as I expected to, and I had no intention to read this until I saw Rohan’s review, which makes it sound like exactly my kind of book (and it helps that Rohan was also unenthusiastic about The Essex Serpent). What I did not expect was to find this book to be such perfect Lenten reading, nor did I anticipate that it would be so thematically linked with Kristin Lavransdattar, which I just finished reading.

Perry draws on the 1820 novel Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin (which I haven’t read) to create a legend involving a woman who, having witnessed the Resurrection of Christ, denies what she has seen and is then condemned to wander the earth forever, observing people’s greatest acts of evil, always alone. She’s an image in the corner of the eye of a troubled soul, a haunting at our darkest moments.

Helen Franklin, who lives an ascetic life in modern-day Prague, comes across the story of Melmoth through her fried Karel. Karel has a set of manuscripts by and about people who are haunted by Melmoth, given to him by a friend who died suddenly and somewhat mysteriously. The manuscripts tell stories of people committing various wrongs, usually involving complicity in some greater wrong. And then, having done wrong, they are haunted. As is Helen herself.

Kristin Lavransdatter is deeply concerned with the long-term effects of sin and guilt on the individual, and I think Melmoth is as well. Kristin, for her whole life, cannot get past her worst moment. She doesn’t accept and internalize the absolution offered to her, which, in her Catholic worldview, should have put her on a right moral footing once again. Her personal Melmoth is always there, reminding her of the events that led to her marriage. The characters in Melmoth, likewise, are defined by their worst moments. Helen lives in what looks like a constant penitential state (although she herself would not use those terms). We know little about the other characters, aside from what they did wrong.

All of these stories raise the question of how to deal with our own wrong-doing — in Christian terms, with our own sin. Melmoth offers no excuses for its characters’ moral crimes. They may be young enough or ignorant enough not to understand the full extent of their wrong and one in particular may not be doing something so terrible by our contemporary standards, but they all do recognize, in the moment, that they’re doing something they shouldn’t. These are not victimless crimes either. People suffer and die at the characters’ hands. Yet they go on living. And Melmoth is there, trying to coax them into wandering with her.

And that’s where the book starts to feel like a Lenten reading to me. In Lent, Christians contemplate our sin and need for grace, and, when Easter comes, we celebrate the Resurrection and the grace Christ offers, a grace that allows us to get past our sins. Melmoth is unable to contemplate anything but sin, and she tempts others to do the same. The only way forward is to recognize the wrong, seek forgiveness if possible, and move on. Perry manages to make moral wrong serious while also showing that it is possible, even essential, to get past it. I found the book oddly beautiful, despite how disturbing the stories sometimes are. Perry is going for some big ideas, presented in an ambitious way, and I think she pulls it off. This story will haunt me in the best possible way.

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Kristin Lavransdatter 3: The Cross

The final book in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy (translated by Tiina Nunnally) finds Kristin, Erland, and their sons back at Kristin’s childhood home of Jørundgård, thanks to Erland’s political machinations detailed in The WifeThey no longer have the wealth and influence they were accustomed to, but they are able, for a time at least, to maintain a close relationship with Kristin’s sister Ramborg and her husband Simon. But Simon’s history with Kristin creates emotional complications all around.

Over time, the complications and hardship bring tension into Kristin and Erland’s marriage. And, as Kristin’s sons grow up, she worries that they will, like her, choose paths that they later regret. Her feelings about her marriage remain conflicted. She loves Erland, but she can’t get past her own guilt about the beginnings of their marriage, and Erland’s lack of guilt doesn’t help.

This book got me thinking a lot about the interaction of guilt, grace, and faith. After her marriage, Kristin did penance and sought forgiveness for her early relationship with Erland. But years later, she can’t let it go. It would be easy enough to say that there’s a sort of religious mania at work here — that she’s been taught that her purity is her only worth and now she’s forever tainted. And certainly there’s a burden laid on Kristin that Erland never suffers. But, to some degree, I think Kristin’s guilt is of her own making. She did her penance. Her parents and her priest got over it. That’s not to say there were no consequences for her breaking her promise to Simon and her parents. She’s still a sometime subject of gossip, and Simon’s feelings cause issues in both of their marriages. But I get the sense that she’s never accepted God’s grace for herself, and so she remains stuck in that mistake. Later, she encounters a woman who goes through something of the same journey she went through, and that woman is able to get over it without getting mired in guilt. And maybe, just maybe, her approach is healthier in the long run, even if it is less honorable. The book seems to recognize the merits of both approaches, although its heart is with Kristin.

And all of that is what makes this trilogy so rich. It delves into the social morays of medieval Norway, but it’s mostly focused on people dealing with their feelings. Those feelings are informed by the time, but guilt and worry and destructive thought spirals are of all times. As are questions of how our actions affect others and how to balance our own desires with our beliefs about right and wrong.

The book concludes with an amazing sequence in which Kristin goes on a sort of pilgrimage that is even more arduous that the one she took in The Wreath. This time, she finally seems able to put her burdens down. The ending is happy, in a way, but it’s also tragic. Kristin was a remarkable woman, but she let herself in for so much unnecessary suffering. It was difficult to watch.

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Kristin Lavransdatter 2: The Wife

The second volume in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, translated from Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally finds Kristin newly married and pregnant, learning to adjust to her new home at Husaby. Although she finally has the marriage she longed for for years, she is miserable, consumed with guilt over her actions and fear that her coming son will suffer for her sins.

Yet, as it turns out, Erland is not as bad a husband as I had feared, nor is their early marriage an unmitigated disaster. He’s not a good manager, leaving much of the work to Kristin as he goes off to fight in various conflicts, and he’s not particularly attentive to the many sons that Kristin bears. But, with a few exceptions, he’s also not overtly cruel. He’s just … focused on his own stuff, which makes him not a great husband, but not an awful one, especially given the time. And, as the years pass, he’s even able to make some peace with Kristin’s father, Lavrans.

Still, even if Erland were a perfect spouse, Kristin’s guilt would probably not go away easily. She confesses and does penance and tries to get past it, but whenever anything goes wrong, she comes right back to the early years of their relationship. Matters become more complicated as her family becomes more closely connected with Simon, her previous betrothed.

One of the things I admired about this book was that Unset gives each character a vivid inner life. Even the characters who appear briefly feel like complex people, with ideas of their own. Although much of the book focuses on Kristin’s inner journey, we spend enough time inside the minds of other characters to understand their point of view. None of the characters are wholly good, but they have comprehensible reasons for their actions.

The book is at its best when it deals with daily life and with characters’ relationships. The depiction of Kristin’s first labor is particularly memorable. There are some political subplots that I found hard to follow and, until late in the book, too far from the book’s emotional core to be worth sorting out in detail. But, other than that, I was glad to spend time in this world, as painful as it sometimes was.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

The Four Last Things

As an avid reader of crime fiction, I’m not easily rattled by dark content. I have my limits — I avoid reading about torture when I can, for instance — but I don’t mind violence when it’s intelligently used in service of a good story. The Four Last Things by Andrew Taylor pushed the limit for me. It’s a good book, extremely suspenseful and well-paced and hard to put down, but I’m not sure that I’m glad to have read it.

The crime at the center of the book is the abduction of 4-year-old Lucy Appleyard. Lucy is the daughter of Sally, who just started a job as curate in an Anglican parish in London, and Michael, a police detective. The chapters, all in third person, alternate between the stories of Sally and of Eddie, the man who took Lucy. As the story goes on, we learn of Eddie’s history and the events that led up to the abduction and his actions afterward. And we watch Sally as she frets with guilt over Lucy’s disappearance and the strain in her marriage.

As long as the book was focused on Sally, I was fine, although that half of the narrative was the most straightforward and the least absorbing. Her narrative gets at the all-too-common story of maternal guilt at working away from home, with the added combination of taking a job as clergy, which many consider inappropriate, even sinful, for a woman. In fact, during Sally’s first Sunday at her new church, a woman interrupted her sermon, yelling, “She-devil. Blasphemer against Christ. Apostate.”

For Sally, the mystery gets more intense and worrying when a little girl’s hand appears on top of a gravestone. It’s not Lucy’s, but it’s worrying. And it’s not the last. Sally is torn by her relief when a body part turns out not to be Lucy’s and her guilt at not caring about the families of the other girls.

The families of the other girls are annoyingly absent from the narrative. There’s a throwaway line early on about how Lucy’s disappearance would make headlines because of who her parents were. And that’s probably true, but we learn nothing about the other girls. It’s a strange hole in the story, mostly a side effect of not being about the detectives working the case.

Where the book pushed me was in the chapters about Eddie. I’ve read plenty of novels from the criminal’s point of view, but there were elements of Eddie’s back story that I found troubling, almost seeming to blame the women in his life for the way he turned out. I understand that this probably was meant to be Eddie’s own perspective, but that wasn’t always clear. What’s more, he sort of turns out to be the good guy in this half of the narrative. His collaborator, Angel, is on a whole other level. And what she’s up to mixes murder and religion in a way that made me nauseous. I almost put the book down more than once, when it went just a step too far. But I also wanted to see that Lucy survived (and couldn’t bring myself to skip to the end, in case she didn’t).

The book is part of a trilogy, which can be read in any order and actually go backward in time. The ending raises some questions that, as disturbed as I was by this book, also left me curious. So maybe I’ll read more?

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Kristin Lavransdatter 1: The Wreath

Sigrid Undset’s trio of novels set in 14th-century Norway tells the story of a young woman named Kristin, daughter of the prosperous farmer, Lavrans (hence the name Lavaransdatter). The first novel, The Wreath, translated by Tina Nunnally, was published in 1920, with new novels published in subsequent years. Undset received a Nobel prize, and the series is considered a classic in Norwegian literature. I saw a movie adaptation years ago and had always wanted to read the books, and I enjoyed the first book quite a bit.

In The Wreath, Kristin’s family has been beset by tragedy in the death of multiple baby boys and the nearly fatal injury of Kristin’s little sister, Ulvhild. But the family maintains a strong Christian faith, albeit one that makes room for the ministrations of a local witch when it’s clear that her herbal remedies have the potential to save a life or ease pain.

Kristin is eventually betrothed to a man named Simon, but a scandal that ensues after Kristin is nearly raped forces her into a convent in Oslo, where she meets Erlend Nikulaussøn, who comes from wealth but was excommunicated when he had an affair with a married woman and had two children with her. He claims the relationship is over, and Kristin, despite her devout faith, can’t keep herself from falling in love with him. And so it goes.

One thing that occurred to me as I was reading was how the family’s concern for respectability kept them from equipping Kristin with the ability to seek the right kind of happiness. She was taught to prize happiness but was given few tools for seeing through scoundrels. In the early chapters of the book, she has more than one opportunity to marry a decent man, but, in one case, he was assumed to be too far below her station. In another, he was too decent to properly woo her, choosing instead to treat their potential marriage as a business arrangement. (Although, for my part, as a grown-up woman, I was impressed at Simon’s reaction to Kristin’s near-rape. Maybe having Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Angel Clare on my mind lowered my standards.)

As the book ends, everything seems to be going downhill. There are portents of misery everywhere. I put the book down feeling worried for Kristin and sad for her parents, who are having to deal with their own realizations. I hope to read the next book, The Wife, soon. (Much to my annoyance, my library has all three volumes cataloged as a single record and none are at my local branch, so it’ll be a bit of a chore to get the next two books. I actually thought I was getting the omnibus edition when I reserved this one. A minor annoyance, but still…)

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina and escaped to the North in 1842. In 1861, this book, recounting her experiences in slavery and eventual escape was published under the pseudonym Linda Brent (and, as Linda is the name she uses in the memoir, I’ll use that name in the review).

Linda’s situation in slavery was initially somewhat easier than what other slaves experienced. Her family is given a fair amount of freedom of movement, and she even learns to read. Her grandmother is able to work and earn her own money and eventually buy her own freedom.

Eventually, however, Linda’s kinder mistress dies, and Linda is bequeathed to the young daughter of a relative. The father of the family, Dr. Flint, starts pursuing Linda, who is absolutely horrified at the prospect of sex with a married man she does not love. She is able to rebuff his advances but eventually decides to seek a relationship with another white man, Mr. Sands, in hopes that he will protect her. This goes against all her principles, and she makes a strong point of how slavery makes traditional, Christian morals impossible for women. Linda and Sands have two children together, and Linda worries all the time that Flint will sell them away from her or send them to work in the fields out of spite.

Linda decides to escape to draw Flint’s attention away from the children. Her idea is to hide nearby until Flint loses interest in her and use that opportunity to escape to the North, with her children. She then spends seven years confined in her grandmother’s attic, where she cannot even stand. Finally, she makes her escape, but she cannot be secure in the North, knowing that Flint still seeks her.

The book reads like a novel, full of suspenseful moments and unforeseen complications. The chain of events leading to Linda’s escape are especially tense, even though it’s clear from the existence of the memoir that she does succeed in getting away. But, of course, this is a novel with a purpose.

As a woman, Jacobs is able to write about the sexual slavery that women experience. Even though her own circumstances were relatively comfortable as a slave, the potential for rape at the hands of Flint was a special sort of jeopardy. And even without that fear, the ease she does experience doesn’t make up for the lack of freedom because any comfort is does experience could be taken away at any moment, not by the vagaries of chance but by the capriciousness of man. Her tight-knit family could be broken up at any moment, and everyone knows it.

But Jacobs is not interested only in condemning Southern slaveholders. Although she finds many kind friends in the North who take up her cause, she is horrified by the North’s complicity in the slave trade they supposedly oppose. People who claim to support freedom — including, to some degree, Sands — cannot allow Black people to exist on their level. Prejudice prevents her from riding in the same train cars or sitting at the same table as White people. And the Fugitive Slave Act puts her in constant fear, knowing that anyone could turn her in and have her sent back to Flint.

As a historical document, this is an important book, but it’s also a good read. Its influence also appears in books like The Underground Railroad, with its attic scene that echoes Linda’s experience. I’m glad to have read it.

Posted in History, Memoir | 6 Comments